Australia does not honour its artists sufficiently. For decades there has been an undeclared rejection of artists who do not fit neatly into a code or style. Emmanuel Angelicas is one of these. I congratulate the ACP on including him in their program and on their continued initiative to acknowledge photographers with a long-term exhibition history who have not received the attention they deserve.
Angelicas’ Buka was programmed by Kon Giourotis during his brief directorship of the ACP. However, the theatrical staging of Buka reflects the inheritance of its previous director Alasdair Foster. To walk into the dramatic atmosphere of the large exhibition space was to delight in an abundance of riches. The darkness embraced me and I was immediately entranced by the large photographic transfer onto bricks of an image of hands holding a Hindu ceremonial cloth called a poleng and a small votive representation of Christ on the cross. Next to this were quotations that combined to set the scene, including:
“The servants of the Beneficent God are they who walk on the earth in humbleness, and when the ignorant address them they say: Peace.” Koran 25.63
As a photographic artist Emmanuel Angelicas is an unusual mix of humility and defiance. Buka is a departure from his signature approach, which employs square black and white format, featuring portraiture and environment to explore individual personality (www.emmanuelangelicas.com.au).
Environmental portraiture in photography is typified by the work of Diane Arbus who was hugely influential in the mid-1970s. In Australia photographers such as Jon Lewis and Max Pam are well known examplars of this style. Pam and Angelicas were ‘partners in crime’, working on many shows together while supporting each other as practitioners.
Pam was the senior in this relationship that began when the artists met at art school in 1984. One subject they had in common was the eroticised Asian female. Since the 80s the stereotyping of the female body as erotic has been regarded as ideologically unsound which meant this work was regarded as problematic in some circles. Pam and Angelicas attracted the reputation of being ‘bad boys.’ The attraction to the Asian female body continues in Buka and some viewers might be uncomfortable with it but I don’t want to focus on this issue.
If we look at the history of Angelicas’ practice since the 1970s we discover a rich record of urban Sydney Greek culture. Born in Marrickville in 1963, where he still lives, he has responded to this archetypical yet unique multicultural Sydney suburb where sophisticated urbanity combines with traditional Greek culture. Perhaps Angelicas’ most iconic and memorable image is of a young Greek man sitting on a chair on the roof of a Marrickville house with a plane traversing the sky above him. This image, titled Person who would rather not be in Marrickville and made in 1985, perfectly captures the controversy raging at the time about the imposition of air traffic on urban Sydney.
|In the last 20 years Angelicas has had delicate health but accepted an invitation to Bali to document Balinese instruments in musical performances. As Max Pam says in his catalogue essay, “He loved the Balinese from the get go, and they loved him right back.” This led to many trips there between 2004 and 2013. He was introduced to the royal family and formed a fruitful friendship with Arya, a man who was a member of the royal staff. Bali provided Angelicas with the opportunity to heal. It also yielded an invaluable purpose, providing something that Marrickville did not although he was continuing to photograph there.|
Seduced by the vibrancy of Balinese culture, in Buka Angelicas steps away from past practice and shoots colour. It is hard to put into words the magic of the environment created in this evocative exhibition. The staging and pools of lighting emphasize this by creating the atmosphere of a shrine, mirroring the importance of worship in Hindu culture and religion. For those who, like myself, have been to Bali there is no need for persuasion. For those who have not I can only hope they’re tempted to visit.
In the portraits, which make up the majority of the images, there is an intimacy, an openness that testifies to a special exchange between the Balinese people and the Australian photographer. Angelicas says this intimacy is revealed in the one to one photographs, looking into the eyes of his subjects. His special access to the royal family adds stylishness and a sense of occasion to other images.
There are hundreds of photographs constellated in clusters and single images of different sizes showing beautiful Balinese people of all ages, in traditional clothing, among verdant vegetation, in stone temples, under colourful sunset skies, groupings of young men wrapped in sarongs posing intently for the camera. In a grid of photos devoted to cock fighting a large central image features a man in a gateway proudly holding his black rooster for the camera. Circling the grid is a line of sharp spears that are attached to the ankle of the birds when they fight to the death.
The exhibition as immersive installation is its greatest strength. A wonderful component is the transfer of photographs onto the surface of traditional Balinese textures such as wood, bricks, silk, mother of pearl and bamboo. Angelicas did this with the help of artisans and technicians in both Bali and Australia. An image of a large orange and white carp in water is printed onto tiles and laid at an angle on the floor in the main room of the gallery. There is an image of shadow puppets on silk, a beautiful naked girl on mother of pearl and a man on snakeskin with a serpent curled around his neck. Individual images are framed with an ornate Balinese wooden frame (an image of what may be a royal couple with their children) or lined with traditional red and gold fabric (four young men naked to the waist in batik sarongs). Angelicas says of these masterful material transfers that “the photographs have been turned into objects, however at the end of the day they are still photographs.”
These elements bring us closer to an experience of being in Bali, a place and culture that has been historically over-romanticized, glamourised, terrorised and exploited. However it is a resilient and rich culture deserving of portrayal especially from the perspective of an Australian photographer. As I write this response to Buka in the warm weather of a Sydney summer I think I need a coconut and lychee cocktail and a gado gado. Then again, maybe I’ll go to Marrickville for a baklava and Turkish coffee. Congratulations Emmanuel Angelicas and may you be healed by Bali.
Emmanuel Angelicas, BUKA, curator Tony Nolan, assistant curators Claire Monneraye, Belinda Hungerford, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 31 Aug-17 Nov, 2013